Rachel and Rodney Saunders pictured with BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Bailey. The photo was posted on Bailey’s Twitter account on February 8. According to Bailey’s caption, “The amazing Rod and Rachel Saunders of Silver Hill Seeds. These guys know their South African native plants.....and vitally where to find them. They sell an incredible range of seeds online”. Picture: Supplied

Durban – A 23-year-old man was arrested in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday morning, in connection with the alleged abduction of Cape Town husband and wife botanists and business owners, Rachel Saunders, 64, and Rodney Saunders, 73, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (known as the Hawks) said.

Hawks spokesperson, Captain Lloyd Ramovha, told African News Agency (ANA) on Monday afternoon that the suspect was arrested in the Endlovini area and would appear in the Mtunzini Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.

Ramovha said the couple was yet to be located. 

“The search is ongoing. We have a dedicated team [in the KZN area] that is working around the clock,” Ramovha said.

“We arrested a third suspect this morning, a male, in the Endlovini area of KZN. He is 23. He will appear in Mtunzini Magistrate’s Court tomorrow.”

The suspect was charged with possession of stolen property and “he is also charged with the same charges as [Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio and Bibi Fatima Patel], which is kidnapping,” according to Ramovha.

According to the charge sheet for Del Vecchio and Patel, they are facing charges of kidnapping, robbery, theft and terrorism. 

Ramovha said they were initially set to appear in the Vryheid Magistrate’s Court, but that the appearance had been moved to Verulam (Tongaat area) on March 1.

The suspects are alleged to have kidnapped and assaulted the Saunders and stolen cash and their Land Cruiser “between 10 and 15 February” at or near Bivane Dam in the Vryheid area, according to the charge sheet.  

The Saunders own Cape Town-based Silverhills Seeds and Books, which supplies indigenous seeds and books to local and international markets. 

“Silverhill Seeds is owned by Rod and Rachel Saunders, who travel around Southern Africa in their quest for seeds. However, much of their work is carried out in South Africa, from the mountains of the Cape to the craggy heights of the Drakensberg,” according to Silverhills’ website.

According to London-based pubication The Times, the couple were “searching for rare plants when they disappeared from the town of Vryheid in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains on February 12”.

“The couple were pictured on February 8 on the Twitter account of the BBCGardeners’ World presenter Nick Bailey as they searched for rare gladioli together,” according to The Times.

The terrorism charge the two accused face relates to the alleged collecting and displaying of an Isis flag during the period of the alleged kidnapping.

According to the charge sheet Del Vecchio faces a second terrorism charge where he “unlawfully solicited or provided support for a terrorist organisation…namely [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] ISIL or ISIS” between 2015 and 2017.

“[Del Vecchio] knew or ought reasonably to have known or suspected that such soliciting was connected with terrorist activities by participating in extremist web forums that support ISIL and offering to supply phone numbers and sim cards that are not traceable.”

Del Vecchio is also being charged with “malicious injury to property” for setting alight a sugar cane field in September 2017 in uMdloti just outside Durban, which resulted in damage of over R2 million.

The Hawks had initially asked that the names and photos of the abducted couple not be published, but told ANA that the request had fallen away.

African News Agency/ANA